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Authentication is the process of submitting and checking credentials to validate or prove user identity. Authentication is used in access control to allow only specific individuals access to a building or computer system. The process of authentication typically starts by providing a username along with one or more of the following credentials:

Credential Description
Password A password is a secret value known only to the user.
  • A PIN is a short numeric value.
  • A password contains letters, numbers, and other characters.
  • A passphrase is a longer password that might contain multiple words.
Many authentication systems also use cognitive information about you to help prove your identity. Cognitive information asks you questions that only you (or someone close to you) would know the answer to. Examples include:
  • Your mother's maiden name
  • The model or color of your first car
  • The city where you were born
This information is typically not used for authentication, but rather to recover or reset a lost password or PIN.
Smart card A smart card is a physical card that contains a memory chip. Authentication credentials are embedded in this memory chip.
  • A smart card can store digital signatures, cryptography keys, and identification codes.
  • Smart cards are often used in combination with a PIN for authentication (users must type a PIN and provide the smart card).
  • A swipe card contains information in a magnetic strip. A swipe card is technically not the same as a smart card.
  • Contactless smart cards can be read without the card coming into contact with the reader.
Biometric A biometric is a human trait or characteristic that is unique between different people.
  • Biometrics converts the physical characteristic to a set of metrics (measurements). Enrollment is the process of scanning the physical trait to capture the associated metrics.
  • Authentication requires presenting the physical body part or characteristic to a scanner (or reader) which then compares the recently scanned metric to the saved metric.
  • Common attributes used for biometric systems are:
    • Fingerprints
    • Retina scans (blood vein pattern)
    • Facial scans (pattern)
    • Voice recognition
    • Handwriting dynamics
    • Keyboard or keystroke dynamics (behavioral biometric systems)
Some laptops now include a biometric fingerprint reader.